Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
My legs quivered uncontrollably as I gripped the metal handlebars above me. I glanced at my husband, who shot me an encouraging smile. “You got this, babe!”
I let go and immediately screamed. I was midway through the highest zip line in Central America, more than 3,000 feet above the lush Costa Rican canopy below me, and too terrified to take in the scenery. I made it to the end, and then watched as my husband flew in behind me, with a look on his face that could only be described as pure blissed-out adrenaline.
The experience was a new one for me, and not just because I wasn’t normally much of an adventure-seeker. On all our previous trips, my husband and I had stuck to a pretty strict schedule; each time, before we left, I’d meticulously plan each day from the time we woke up to the time we went to bed. But this trip, we were trying another way: aside from our hotels and flights, we didn’t plan anything.
So when we drove by a sign for the highest zip line in Central America, we impulsively decided to give it a try.
For weeks afterward, I couldn’t stop thinking about that zip-lining pit stop, and the sheer joy that came from so much spontaneity. I wanted more of that feeling in my marriage. My husband is relaxed, mellow, and often described by others as “the chillest person I’ve ever met”; I, on the other hand, am an anxious, obsessive, list-making planner. For me, unplanned moments like that are hard to come by.
So I started researching how to capture them. And then, deep into Google, I discovered the Taoist concept of wu wei.
Although there is no direct English translation, wu wei (pronounced oo-way) could perhaps be described as “effortless action,” explains Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia and author of Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. The concept, which has its roots in ancient Chinese philosophical writings, has seen a revival in contemporary science, Slingerland says, as scientists have begun to study the psychological mechanisms behind it.
“[Wu wei] is a state where you are in fact accomplishing a great deal, and you’re very effective, but you have a subjective feeling of relaxation and a kind of loss of sense of self,” Slingerland says. By training yourself to take action only when it feels natural, he explains, you can become more effective, successful, and fulfilled, whether that’s in your job, creative pursuits, or, as in my case, a romantic relationship.
“People in wu wei feel as if they are doing nothing, while at the same time they might be creating a brilliant work of art, smoothly negotiating a complex social situation or even bringing the entire world into harmonious order,” Slingerland writes in Trying Not to Try. It’s similar to the concept of flow, though the main difference is that wu wei involves more feelings of relaxation, while flow involves more feelings of challenge or complexity.
To me, the idea that it’s possible to try not to try seemed both revelatory and, well, impossible.
Slingerland can empathize: “When I say to you, ‘Don’t think of a white elephant,’ you immediately think of a white elephant, because I’ve just activated that concept in your brain by speaking those words,” he says. The same goes for wu wei, apparently: You can’t learn to naturally relax if you’re constantly telling yourself that you need to.
Instead, Slingerland recommends two strategies for mastering the art of caring less. The first is to recognize when it’s okay not to keep pushing forward when we hit an obstacle; in some cases, we’d be better off considering that the barrier either exists for a reason or can’t be pushed past at all.
Case in point: My husband and I have been together for eight years, and have struggled to share a bed the entire time. I’m restless, and he constantly moves. Only recently have we begun to accept this imperfection in our relationship. In the past, we would attempt to share the bed each night, which would inevitably lead to an argument. My husband, who I’ve come to learn naturally embodies wu wei, always took a calmer approach to our problem, saying this was just one blip in an otherwise wonderful relationship. I, on the other hand, felt determined to resolve the issue, which only led to unnecessary bickering. But we recently began sleeping in separate beds that are next to each other, and just purchased two twin beds to connect as one king bed for our new home — and I feel more content with this solution than I ever imagined.
Slingerland’s second strategy is simpler: “Create space in your life for spontaneity to happen,” he says. “There are little things people can do to create space in their day to experience mind-wandering. That opens the space for creativity and spontaneity in a way that we don’t normally have it happen.”
My husband and I, for example, didn’t have cell-phone data on our trip to Costa Rica, which turned out to be a blessing: We relished the opportunity to have deeper, more meaningful conversations without the distraction of our phones. Now that we’re home, we’ve tried to put wu wei into practice by placing our cell phones and laptops out of reach for a couple of hours each night.
Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been preparing for a move from Dallas to Chicago for his medical residency. He currently works a somewhat unpredictable schedule, so we weren’t sure what day we’d be able to make our 16-hour drive.
Ever the uptight planner, I found myself slowly becoming anxious that we couldn’t nail down a date. And then, thinking of Silngerland’s advice, I took a calm, objective look at the situation: He doesn’t know what day works, and there’s no changing that, I told myself. I am self-employed, so any day works for me. It will all be fine.
My ability to go with the flow and take this big life event in stride has benefitted both of us. We have made a handful of big moves together, and this one — the biggest yet — has also been the calmest.
I wasn’t consciously trying to incorporate wu wei in this moment. But to my delight, I realized it was happening without me even trying.